Introducing Sìchuān

Interpret literally the five Chinese elements (water, earth, wood, metal, fire) and you may understand the attraction that Sìchuān has had for millennia. Sìchuān means ‘Four Rivers’ and the name pays tribute to that most essential element, water. Indeed, the ‘four’ are but the mightiest of the 1300-plus rivers roiling or sedately meandering across the southwest’s most expansive province and long dominating the ethos.

Underappreciating the land (‘earth’) here defies possibility; one can’t help but note the high quotient of set-in-Sìchuān poetry and shānshuǐ huā (‘mountain water painting’, a traditional Chinese form). Sìchuān is ensconced to the north, west, and south by sublime mountain ranges at once majestic and foreboding (and the reason why Sìchuān remained so isolated for so much of China’s history). In the west, the sparsely populated Tibetan plateau, birthplace of many ribbony waterways, pushes skyward with each kilometre. The rivers spill eastward into the Chuānxī plain of the preternaturally fecund Sìchuān basin, which supports one of the densest (and most diverse) populations on the planet (and filling a billion other mouths).

With epic tracts of forest (‘wood’) and vast deposits of ore (‘metal’), Sìchuān has become one of China’s wealthiest provinces and in no small part is the engine of western China.

Ah, but fire may be the most esoteric. No volcanoes, but to toy with a metaphor, ‘fire’ here really means spice, as in hot (italics essential) peppers, the key ‘element’ of Sìchuān’s renowned flamethrower cuisine. The preponderance of peppers isn’t arbitrary; their spiciness is believed to help reduce a person’s internal dampness caused by high humidity and rainy weather.

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